DSC06257Old name: Chrysopolis (City of Gold)

If you make only one side trip across the Bosphorus to the Asian side of İstanbul it should arguably be to Üsküdar, a suburb with a reputation for conservativism but which is full of fine mosques, including several by Sinan, as well as a handful of decent places to meet. Its undercover market is also very colourful and worth a quick look (although the fruit and veg part of it was removed in 2014).

Just getting the vapur (ferry) across to Üsküdar is a delight offering the chance to eye up the cute little offshore Kızkulesi (Maiden's Tower) as you glide into the pier. 

Despite its conservatism Üsküdar has chosen to decorate its waterfront with modern sculptures by Faruk Akın. Two - 1453 and 1923 - commemorate landmark dates in Turkish history while a third shows a giant alarm clock. asku1Mural near Profiti İlya church

Around Üsküdar

When you step ashore at Üsküdar you will be looking straight at the İskele Cami (Harbour Mosque) across the busy main road. Currently undergoing restoration, the İskele Cami is a work of Sinan dating back to 1548 and built for the daughter of Sultan Süleyman the Magnificent, Mihrimah Sultan. In some ways reminscent of the Kılıç Ali Pasa Cami at Tophane, the İskele Cami once stood right on the waterfront before land was reclaimed to create the road. 

Parts of the mosque complex still survive. The medrese, also overlooking the water, now provides an inviting centre for a clinic, while the sibyan mektep (primary school) at the back now houses a children's library. Unusually, there is a fine sundial attached to the wall as you exit the courtyard towards the library at the rear.

asku2Stranded on a traffic island in front of the mosque is the lovely Sultan Ahmed III fountain which will remind many people of the one in front of the main entrance to Topkapı Palace. It was built in 1728 and its elaborate decoration includes verses penned by the sultan. 

If you follow the coast road round towards the Maiden’s Tower you will reach the small Şemsi Paşa Cami, a complex that was designed by Mimar Sinan in 1580 for the Vizier Şemsi Paşa whose tomb opens, unusually, straight into the mosque. Covered in İznik tiles, it includes an epitaph written by Abdülcelil Levni (d.1732) that translates as “Hopefully the place of the blessed dead is paradise”.

Overlooking the point where the Bosphorus meets the Sea of Marmara, the building was nicknamed the “Birds Can’t Land Mosque (Kuşkonmaz Cami)” because the strength of the Bosphorus winds kept the seagulls at bay. The mosque was restored in 2009; the medrese is now used as a library.uskudar2Dome of Rum Mehmed Paşa Cami rising up behind those of Şemsi Paşa Cami

The coast road continues out to a district called Salacak where there are a handful of fine old wooden yalis (waterside mansions) on the inland side of the road, but most people will be too busy looking at Kızkulesi (Maiden's Tower) just offshore to pay them much attention.

There appears to have been a tower on this spot since 408 BC when the first one was built by the Athenian general Alcibiades to ward off Persian invaders. In the 12th century the Byzantine Emperor Manuel I Komnenos built a small castle here which caught the eye of Sultan Mehmed II who refortified it in the 15th century.

The castle eventually fell foul of a fire in 1719, only to be rebuilt almost at once by Damat İbrahim Paşa, grand vizier to Sultan Ahmed III. The tower that visitors see today only dates back to the early 19th century and the reign of Sultan Mahmud II. 

Whether you want to take the boat across to the tower may depend on time but in my opinion you won't miss much if you don't since the view from the tower is much the same as from the shore. If you've got a cool 22 million euros you could even buy the tower as it's up for sale (2014). 

uskudar3Keep walking along the coast road towards Kadıköy and you will come to a surprisingly rustic little fishing harbour still surviving in the heart of the city.

If instead you head inland from the ferry terminal you will see, on the right, the enormous Yeni Valide Cami which manages to inject a touch of greenery into a very built-up area. It was designed in 1710 for Valide Rabia Gülnüş Ümmetullah, Sultan Ahmed III's mother.

Unlike many of İstanbul's later mosques it was designed with a large courtyard surrounded with porticoes like the earlier imperial mosques. Fortunately this hasn't been lost to later road-widening and makes a wonderfully quiet oasis from the traffic hustle outside.

If you leave the mosque through the exit on the water-facing side you will be facing a lovely fountain and the twin-domed Cedit Valide İmaret (Soup Kitchen). Just round the corner the lost wooden Balaban Tekkesi (dervish lodge) has just been completely rebuilt.

Across busy Selmani Pak Caddesi is a brick-built hamam that has been converted into a small shopping centre. It's attribution to Sinan is contentious although the date is probably about right and Sinan does seem to have spent a lot of time in Üsküdar. 

If you cut inland from the Şemsi Paşa Cami you will come to the pretty Rum Mehmed Paşa Cami, which, with its brick-built dome, has a vaguely Byzantine look to it. It was built in 1471 for one of Sultan Mehmed II's grand viziers.

asku3Ayazma CamiFurther inland and uphill from the Rum Mehmed Paşa Cami is the huge baroque Ayazma Cami, commissioned by Sultan Mustafa III for his mother Mihrişah Emine Sultan in 1760, and designed by Mehmed Tahir Ağa who reportedly used almost 9,000 eggs and plenty of honey to make the cement.

The mosque is named after a neaby ayazma (sacred spring) as was a palace of which there is no longer any trace. Note the small birdhouses on the façade and on the gateway. Look out, too, for what are probably the last remaining Janissary tombstones in the city, identifiable from the flamboyant headgear carved onto the top of them. This is the mosque that dominates the eastern skyline of Üsküdar as you approach by ferry.

To find the creme de la creme of the Üsküdar mosques, the Atik Valide Cami, you need to head uphill along Toptaşı Caddesi which is marked by a preserved cannonball. The hill is steep so you might prefer to jump in a bus and ask to be put out near the mosque complex. 

It goes almost without saying that this mosque - the Süleymaniye of the Asian side of İstanbul - is a work of Sinan dating back to 1583 when it was built for Sultan Selim II's wife, Nurbanu Sultan.

The mosque itself, copiously decorated with İznik tiles, is perhaps smaller and lower than you might expect but the peaceful courtyard is a delight. More importantly, a lot of the complex still survives and is slowly being restored. The caravanserai belongs to Marmara University but has been allowed to fall into a shocking state of disrepair. The imaret (soup kitchen) has been repaired after long years of decay. Extraordinarily the schoolhouse served for many years as a prison.

uskudar8While up in this part of town you might want to look along the ridge of the hill in search of the enormous 19th-century Armenian Church of Surp Garabed, centrepiece iof an attractive neighbourhood with some fine old wooden houses and the Greek Orthodox Church of the Profiti İlya and school close at hand. 

You might also want to look for the petite but lovely Çinili Cami (Tiled Mosque) and the hamam of the same name that is still in business for men and women. Built in 1640 for the powerful Mahpeyker Kösem Sultan, mother of sultans Murad IV and İbrahim the Mad, it is beautifully wallpapered with İznik tiles. Like the Rüstem Paşa Cami in Tahtakale it seems more truly worthy of the "blue Mosque" nickname than the more famous Sultanahmet Cami. 

One last more central mosque worth seeking out on Gündoğumu Caddesi is the Ahmediye Cami, added to the Üsküdar landscape during the reign of Sultan Ahmed III when it was built in 1722 for Eminzade Hacı Ahmed Paşa.

The mosque itself is not especially dramatic architecturally but there is a fine sebil (water dispensary) attached to the wall outside, and the medrese (seminary) and kütüphane (library) still survive overlooking a garden courtyard.

The back streets of central Üsküdar behind the Yeni Valide Cami might not seem the most likely of places to find a museum displaying colourful kites from all around the world, but that is nonetheless where you’ll find the Uçartma Müzesi (Kite Museumclosed Sundays, admission free) spreading itself across two buildings, one of them devoted to displays, the other to kite-making workshops.

If you still think kites have to take the form of flat diamonds, this is the place to come to learn otherwise. Indeed, it’s hard to imagine how some of the monsters in here would ever have found themselves airborne.uskudar6

In the streets behind the covered market you might also stumble upon the small   Library. 


Filizler Köftecisi

Perfectly poised to grab the hungry commuters pouring out of the Marmaray station, the Filizler is a multi-dimensional food centre with an indoor/outdoor köfte (meatball) restaurant right beside a pastry shop and small delicatessen.

Tel: 0216-343 4549, Ögdul Sokak No. 41, Salacak

Kanaat (Wings)

Something of an Üsküdar institution, Kanaat is a big, brightly lit lokanta that offers a tempting array of sulu yemeği dishes. It's probably best visited at lunch-time. 

Tel: 0216-333 3791, Selmani Pak Caddesi No. 25


If you're after a good İskender kebab then this is a great place to try. It's close to the start of Topbaşı Caddesi so you can slip in before or after a visit to the Atik Valide Cami. 

Tel: 0216-310 4821, Ahmediye Meydanı No. 2

Transport info

You can catch a ferry to Üsküdar from Eminönü, Kabataş or Beşiktaş as well as from Eyüp and points along the Golden Horn. Üsküdar is also one of the major stations on the Marmaray

Buses head along the Bosphorus coast road from in front of the big İskele (Harbour) Cami.

Buses to Ağva leave from near the Şemsi Paşa Cami.

asku4Ayazma Cami: Birdhouses and Janissary tombstonesDolmuşes run east to the Harem Otogar for buses to Anatolia.

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